Martin Luther King celebration encourages attendees to act

Carolyn Higgins was the featured speaker at the Human Relations Council of Macon County’s Martin Luther King event Sunday, imagining how the leader would view modern day social strife and challenging attendees to take the first step to living out their own dreams. Photo by Bob Scott

Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer

When Carolyn Higgins looked out from her wooden podium

Children follow along with a program for the “Celebration Service” in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, held Sunday at First United Methodist Church.

below the stained-glass windows at First United Methodist Church Sunday, she saw a diverse “rainbow of people.” She challenged them not to just attend the yearly event in honor of the Civil Rights hero, but to take away something from Dr. King’s message of education, charity and democracy.

“It may be speaking to someone you have never spoken to before, it may be attending an event that is out of your comfort zone,” she later explained. In her remarks, she asked guests to say “I have a dream” out loud, to contemplate how they might make positive change in the world, or in themselves. 

Each speaker, performer or musician creatively interpreted their act to honor the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. at the afternoon event organized by the Franklin Human Relations Council.

Lionel B. Caynon belted out notes from his saxophone. Ericka Washington lifted attendees with rousing spirituals. Michael Waters led a version of the gospel song “We Shall Overcome” in Spanish. Rev. Mozart Moliere read the “I Have a Dream” speech, his voice dropping to nearly a whisper at times, and then rising high to the mountaintops to capture Dr. King’s vision of American promise. 

“I had more than one violent argument about segregation and integration in my family,” recalled Mayor Bob Scott, a South Carolina native who attended the event, reflecting on the civil rights era in the South. 

Scott remembers how all labels and backgrounds broke down for him in an army barracks, where soldiers of all races wore the same uniform.

The mayor credits Franklin’s athletic and academic programs for encouraging multiculturalism and breaking down racial stereotypes over the decades since he arrived to Franklin in 1967. He also praised a plethora of charitable organizations and opportunities for volunteerism for those moved by Dr. King’s message.

Finding common ground 

Rev. Mozart Meliere delivered Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech with soft lows, and rapturous highs meant to honor the Civil Rights hero’s memory and inspire the congregation to embrace his message. Photos by Bob Scott

“Where are you headed today with the disruption in our nation?” asked Higgins at one point in her remarks, imagining Dr. King to be a “heavenly drone” hovering over America today and looking down at current social strife, including the government shutdown, women oppressing women in the workplace, children dying at the border, bullying and the bended knee controversy at football games. 

Higgins encouraged those present to break out of the “string and cup communication method,” a reference to the limited nature of a paper cup and string telephone between friends. 

Instead, she urged attendees to educate themselves by looking beyond their circle of friends and media sources and to identify commonalities with those who have different backgrounds or political positions. 

“One great place to start is Matthew 25:34-36,” she said.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing,” the Charlotte-native read from the Bible verse. “Take off the muzzle and have a bipartisan conversation among Christian friends and ask the question, ‘Is this your barometer?’”

As a black woman living in a small town with few minorities, she said people approach her to express their political opinions, even telling her they don’t understand and agree with the purpose of the Black Lives Matter movement. She takes these opportunities in stride.

“It was a good opportunity for education,” she explained Monday at the Ingles Starbucks on Georgia Rd. Higgins encouraged a reply of forgiveness, open dialogue and communication. She advised, “Don’t get so upset about the first thing that comes out of someone’s mouth.”

Mayor Scott said breaking down misconceptions is as easy as walking up to a stranger.

“It wouldn’t hurt to walk up and shake their hand and tell them who you are,” he said. “Just reach out to somebody.”

Dressed in 19th-century attire, Stan Polanski recited from memory “The Sexton’s Tale,” a story of Sally, a slave who will be featured in a downtown statue commemorating Franklin’s Women’s History Trail.

Stan Polanski dressed in character with 19th century-style suspenders and a wide-brimmed hat for the “celebration service” Sunday. 

The retired physician’s assistant dropped his Connecticut upbringing and adopted a long, southern drawl as he recited from memory a monologue written by local historian and vice mayor Barbara McRae about Sally, a slave in the 1830s. Timoxena Siler Sloan, a Cherokee woman, and Sally will be featured in a Women’s History Trail statue to be erected downtown, the first of its kind in the state of North Carolina.

In an imaginary graveyard setting nearly 200 years ago, Polanski was a sexton and Sally was tending to the graves.

“Sally spoke to me one time. I asked, ‘Ms. Sally, why do you keep coming around here?” he recited. “She said, ‘My babies.’”

He continued: “‘Where have all the others gone?’ And she said, ‘They’ve gone over to Jordan,” and as he motioned to a place beyond, “‘Gone to the promised land.’”

In Higgins’s address, she asked attendees: “What do you do with a Dream?”

Then she instructed those present to stand up if they could and physically take a step forward. “Anything that you have the capacity to believe in your mind, you have the ability to achieve.”

She later elaborated: “The hardest thing sometimes is that first step.”